Though never too far out of public consciousness, Barbie has been having a particular moment thanks to Greta Gerwig’s history-making movie. And yet there remain Barbie skeptics—women who would never idolize a doll who is so out of proportion she would quite literally topple over if converted to flesh, and parents who would never, in one million years, let their daughters play with the doll. But here’s the thing: The Barbie of 2023 is a far cry from her problematic predecessors (just listen to America Ferrera’s inspiring monologue about the pressure on women to have it all), and there’s also some evidence that this type of play can be good, even empowering, for young girls. We caught up with cognitive neuroscientist Dr. Caroline Leaf to learn how playing with Barbies can actually have a positive impact on your child’s brain development. Here’s what you need to know.
3 Ways Playing with Barbies Can Help Your Kid's Brain, According to a Neuroscientist
Meet the Expert
Dr. Caroline Leaf, PhD, author of Help Your Child Clean Up Their Mental Mess, is a communication pathologist, audiologist, clinical and cognitive neuroscientist specializing in psychneurobiology and metacognitive neuropsychology. Leaf has a Masters and PhD in Communication Pathology and a BSc Logopaedics, specializing in cognitive and metacognitive neuropsychology. Since the early 1980s she has researched the mind-brain connection, the nature of mental health and the formation of memory.
3 Ways Playing with Barbies Can Help Your Child’s Brain
1. Imagination and Creativity
Doll play in general, including with Barbies, encourages kids to use their imagination and creativity, Leaf tells us, adding that when kids engage in role-playing with dolls, they create stories, scenarios and dialogues, requiring them to think outside the box and come up with innovative ideas. “This kind of play helps enhance their cognitive flexibility, problem-solving skills and ability to generate new and unique concepts,” she explains. Recently, Barbie manufacturer Mattel commissioned a multi-year study exploring the short and long-term developmental impacts of doll play by neuroscientists at Cardiff University. During observation of children, researchers saw increased brain activity in the posterior superior temporal sulcus (pSTS) region when they spoke, as though their dolls had thoughts and feelings, leading them to conclude that “even when children play by themselves with dolls, it can help build vital social skills like empathy.”
2. Social and Emotional Development
“Playing with dolls often involves creating relationships and enacting social situations,” Leaf says. “This kind of play helps children develop their social skills, empathy and emotional intelligence and problem-solving skills. They learn to understand and express emotions through their dolls, which can translate into better understanding and managing their own emotions and the emotions of others in real-life situations.” Let’s say a child is dealing with a bully at school. They might use their Barbies to work through their feelings and an attempt at mediation before approaching the situation in real life. On a lighter note, they might even practice asking their parents for a dog with a play conversation between Barbie and Skipper.
3. Fine Motor Skills and Coordination
Have you ever tried to get a tiny Barbie doll into a new outfit? It takes skill—specifically, fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination, Leaf tells us. “Children need to button clothes, tie shoelaces, arrange accessories and handle small objects, all of which contribute to the development of their fine motor skills.” She stresses that these skills are essential for everyday activities like writing, drawing and using utensils.
How to Use Dolls to Encourage Kids to Talk Through Their Emotions
1. Narrative Building
If you’ve ever purchased a Barbie, you’re well aware of how many accessories are available (outfits! pets! dream houses!). While all of these extras might seem unnecessary—and pricey—they’re also pretty beneficial, since they give kids more to work with, imagination-wise. Leaf says, “Children can create intricate narratives around these items, building elaborate stories and scenarios. This narrative building fosters language development, vocabulary expansion and storytelling abilities.” In practice, this could look like providing kids with open-ended prompts or questions, whether that’s ‘I wonder what this Barbie’s favorite part of school is?’ ‘What do you think Barbie and her friends like to do for fun?’ or ‘What do you think this Barbie would do if she didn’t want to share her toys?’
2. Body Image and Diversity
Far from the anatomically-impossible, predominantly white dolls of yore, Barbies now come in a much wider variety of body types, skin tones and hairstyles, crucial to exposing kids to people who might not look like them. “This can help children understand and appreciate diversity…Playing with diverse dolls can contribute to more inclusive and accepting attitudes as children grow up,” Leaf explains. Barbies currently come in 35 skin tones, 97 hair textures, nine body types, including Barbies with Down Syndrome, prosthetic limbs and more. This emphasis on diversity is important in two ways: First, it’s crucial for children to see themselves represented in the toys they play with. Second, diversity in dolls exposes kids to people who don’t look like them, which could help them develop more positive attitudes toward the unknown. In fact, research by Dr. Siân Jones at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh, Scotland, found “that after playing with disabled toys for just three minutes, children develop a more positive friendship attitude towards their peers with disabilities.” As Dr. Bethany Cook, child psychologist and author of For What It’s Worth: A Perspective on How to Survive and Thrive Parenting Ages 0-2, previously told PureWow, “Toys from other cultures offer parents a fun and appealing way to teach their children about diversity and begin to instill in them a passion for the new and novel,” which in turn helps children “develop an understanding that there is more than one way of doing, being, thinking and playing.”
The bottom line? Despite a polarizing nature and sometimes problematic past, a trip to the Barbie aisle might not be such a bad thing after all. In an article for Harper’s Bazaar, poet and author Airea D. Matthews writes, “More than any other doll I ever played with, Barbie revealed the beauty of molding plastic into human form and unveiled the underlying impulse of play: to create an extension of the self, to articulate one’s will and to bend the body of limits….A child with a doll may seem disarming, but a child with an imagination is not. And while some may see her as a quaint relic of a long-past era, Barbie will forever be a dominant part of the American girlhood I somehow survived.”